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Rockcastle R&R for soldiers rocks on, seeks partner

December 24, 2018
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A new 1820s-style cabin at Rockcastle R&R was built from driftwood at Lake Barkley and will be used for date night retreats for military couples. Two other cabins are available for families who are picked through a lottery system for a free weekend at the retreat. (Zirconia Alleyne/Kentucky New Era via AP)
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A new 1820s-style cabin at Rockcastle R&R was built from driftwood at Lake Barkley and will be used for date night retreats for military couples. Two other cabins are available for families who are picked through a lottery system for a free weekend at the retreat. (Zirconia Alleyne/Kentucky New Era via AP)

CADIZ, Ky. (AP) — Cadiz retiree Kelley Carpenter was sitting on a Southwest flight when he first thought “what does thank-you-for-your-service really mean?”

He witnessed both sides of the plane applaud for the soldiers on board, but he wanted to do more.

When he returned to his secluded abode near Land Between the Lakes, Carpenter took a look at the dilapidated cabins on his property and wondered if he was standing right on his answer.

Carpenter decided he would fix up the cabins with the help of Cadiz driftwood artist Brian Savage and give away eight weekend getaways to military families at Fort Campbell. He started a Facebook page, printed some business cards and began to spread the word.

“Before I gave the eight away, I had 350 families that were trying to get it,” he said. “Every single weekend they were booked. Every time I’m giving one (vacation) away, I’m saying no 80 times.”

Rockcastle R&R, a cabin vacation retreat for families of deployed soldiers, has been rocking and rolling since September 2017.

Families submit their names to an online lottery of sorts to come stay for free in one of Carpenters’ three cabins. Two names are drawn for each retreat, networking families to spend the weekend in the woods together and hopefully build a bond.

The fridge and pantry are filled with everything they need for the weekend, even s’mores packs for the fire pit. A canoe and a kayak are available if they want to go on the lake, and free coupons to explore LBL — even a $25 gas card — is at their purvey. They can even bring the family pet, and invite friends to come hangout. All they have to do is show up and relax, Carpenter noted.

“That’s what this group needs — they need flex points just in case something were to come up like deployment last minute,” Carpenter said of uncertain military schedules. “They can check in at any time on Friday, and if they need to reschedule, we can get them back in.”

Since its inception, Rockcastle R&R has been a retreat for 80 military families and hosted 33 day trips. Happy campers leave comments on Facebook about how great Carpenter and 18-year-old Maddie Shepard are at making sure the weekend goes smooth.

Carpenter has received a recognition award from the military, and the Cadiz Trigg County Tourism Commission has come alongside him with $1,000 grants to help with operating costs for October,

November and December.

“Ever since the award, the tourism bureau said we’re better than Disney World, and I think we are,” he said. “The colonel of one unit said we’re affecting forward unit morale. One guy can affect that? I’m not passing that up. This little initiative did that.”

Now, Carpenter is looking toward the next phase of Rockcastle R&R, hoping to land a private partner who can solidify the retreat’s longevity and expansion to offer more retreats and day trips to military families. So far, he’s been funding the getaways month to month with income he makes from renting out his home to Maddie’s parents, and he moved into his RV to keep his personal expenses low.

“I can do all the expansion on a budget of $30,000,” he said. “I want to show them how I can get $2 out of $1, and it can be done. I know because I’m doing it.”

Everything on the property, including the cabins, has been built or scavenged using resources at LBL. Carpenter and his friend who is a woodworker rebuilt the cabins on his land using driftwood they hauled back with their kayaks. The decor came from yard sales and thrift shops.

Carpenter said his only overhead is the electricity and water inside them, and the $25 a week allowance Maddie makes for working as the families’ concierge during their stay.

“Maddie does the check in and dog sits if they need it,” he said. “Literally, she does most of our correspondence.”

Maddie, whose dad was in the military, said working at the retreat is one of the greatest joys, knowing that the families have a good time.

“It’s lovely,” she said. “We tell them about the Nature Center, the planetarium, the bison prairie. We just want them to have a family day, but a lot of them want to just hang out in the cabin because of how nice it is, and that’s fine.”

Carpenter said the newest cabin they’re building will be used to offer date nights for military couples who need a getaway. It resembles a tiny home with just a small dining area in the front, a small room in the back and a bathroom is being built. The yard is fenced in with a picnic table and fire pit.

He has also thought about bringing on AirBNB. Carpenter used to list his property on their platform, but now he hopes AirBNB can add a button that allows home hosts to list their properties for free to service members and their families for getaways. The option would be called, A Different Kind of Thank You for Your Service, the slogan Carpenter uses at Rockcastle R&R. All he needs is a chance inside the boardroom.

“My informal survey shows me that about 15 to 20 percent of their platform users, if given the opportunity to hit “a different kind of thank you for your service” — - it wouldn’t be something they do all the time, there wouldn’t be any exchange of money and it wouldn’t cost AirBNB anything — - they would do it in a heartbeat,” he said.

Homeowners who rent their houses, apartments or cabins out on AirBNB would be able to list the property for free to military families as a weekend getaway whenever they either get a cancellation or on a regular basis as a way to support military families.

“I think that could be responsible for 10,000 vacations a year,” he said. “There are people who want to push that initiative, but they need to see an ongoing program.”

Rockcastle R&R is that program, and Carpenter wants to build on that.

“When I retired, I knew I wanted to do something like this,” he said. “I figured I’d do this for a year, feel good and get out, but this is needed. I’ve become an accidental advocate.”

Maddie echoed his passion for the project.

“He doesn’t like to tell, but we do this month by month, and since we have a co-sponsor we’re funded through the end of the year,” the teen said. “He don’t want to break any of the families’ hearts in knowing they didn’t get one, so he’s just really passionate about growing it. I hope this gets to go on for years and years.”

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Information from: Kentucky New Era, http://www.kentuckynewera.com

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